In Thailand, the sea life is infinitely ungrateful. It is well-fed by tour guides, fiercely harbored by environmental groups, lauded as the subjects of countless worshipful travelogues, documentaries, photographs and paintings … and yet it only seeks to harm. Witness: several bleeding fellow tourists, their flesh shredded by the soft coral lurking beneath the aquamarine waters. Witness, too, my own legs which were bitten by one or two yellow-and-black stripey tropical fish. We snorkeled between jagged, forest-capped cliffs, our speedboat flanked by lazy longboats. My mask, too loose, afforded me only several seconds of ecstatic gazing at the fish and coral below; brief, gasping seconds that I considered well worth it each time I stuck my head beneath the surface. Our vessel captain delighted in hurling bits of bread into the clots of snorkeling tourists in order to lure a swarm of hungry, snapping fish. This is how I got bitten and, thus, leapt out of the water and back into the boat with my legs touching only air.
Witness, too, Pepper’s foot. She did not deem it necessary to actually take pictures so I cannot actually allow you witness it but I invite you to consider it all the same.
We swam off Poda Beach in turquoise water that felt like soup, shot through time and again with deliciously cool currents. We swam out to where we could no longer touch and, after treading the water that cooled our sunburned limbs, we paddled back into shore. I skipped on my toes, unwilling to touch anything that was alive or inherently harmful. I made jokes – told Pepper about my father’s somewhat recent unfortunate encounter with a jellyfish.
“Try not to step on anything, then,” Pepper said wisely. Then, beside me, she yelped.
There had been something sharp on the sea floor, she explained breathlessly, and she had just stepped on it. The pain wasn’t subsiding and, confused, she thrust her foot up to the light. We both peered – the sea-puckered white sole of her small foot was now decorated with a constellation of several small blue-tinted dots that appeared to be embedded just beneath her flesh.
I swallowed. “Pepper,” I said. “This might seem like an importune time to ask, but … you didn’t by any chance have those little blue dots in your foot before, did you?”
“Sea urchin!” declared our vessel captain once he’d been brought to the scene, where Pepper could no longer stand due to the pain.
“Fifteen minutes – you feel better. Is okay!” he declared to our relief and began to systematically whack her foot with a snorkel he had armed himself with – to release the hooks and the poison, he explained. Poison? Fantastic. Nearby, hovered another passenger who hopefully added that urine could also help. Though Pepper was in terrible pain and we had both seen the jellyfish episode of Friends (an irrefutable source of knowledge, to be sure), we met his suggestion with silence. The fellow passenger suggested urine again; two times; three times; four times, he suggested someone urinate on Pepper’s foot.
“Have you got to go?” I asked gently the third or fourth time he mentioned peeing. He laughed and shook his head, and everybody’s legs stayed shut, aside from our sea vessel captain’s – he had sat himself down on the shore with his legs spread on either side of Pepper to anchor himself against the crashing tide.
“Oh my boy!” he cried each time a new wave had splashed over Pepper and into his lap, through the open ends of his swim trunks. With his free hand, he frantically tried to splash the water back to its original depths, but he was unable to keep the cold water and sand from swirling into his trunks. Pepper and I discussed, later, the origins of this strange, passionate elocution of “Oh my boy.” Was our Thai captain, I hypothesized, confusedly combining the popular English cries of “Oh boy” and “Oh my god”? Or was he crying out on behalf of his boy, which was being repeatedly pelted by itchy sand and unwillingly dipped into chilly water as he attempted to rescue Pepper from the sea urchin’s attack? Even after much debate, we are still somewhat divided on this front.
After 15 minutes, Pepper did begin to feel better, just as our new Thai friends had promised. The constant rain of snorkel whacks had numbed her poor foot and the tall, stout, burly captain’s story of his own recent sea urchin attack – resulting in his tears and a Thai shower, courtesy of a female friend – was a refreshing and welcome delight. Pepper popped an ibuprofen and, the danger and fright over, we were able to marvel at her foot – slightly swollen and with tiny black spikes protruding from the blue dots.
On the boat back to Ao Lang Beach, our fellow passengers sat with their wounds daubed in orange merchurochrome and Pepper’s foot lay propped up to help alleviate the swelling. My legs still retained the memory of those tiny, nipping little mouths and the lot of us on the boat suffered various degrees of sunburn. Our urine advocate sat silently, limp and salt-soaked like the rest of us.
The irony, of course, was that back on the shore, both Pepper and I really had needed to go.